Cultural experiences seen from a Danish and a Chinese perspective

September 01, 2021

Cultural experiences from a Dane and a Chinese...China - Culture & Business

In this article Ming Laursen and Ann Christin Mahrt will share our cultural experiences. We met on LinkedIn, and we share common interests. With our different cultural backgrounds and experiences, we hope to inspire and enlighten you. We have through our work experience learned that culture has more influence on business than we believed.

In this article we want to stress that the definition of culture here in this article limits to only the conventional terms, e.g., language, behavioral conventions, values, and characteristics within a particular society, like China. There are other more defined terms in the vast cultural spectrum for example culture of states owned vs private owned organizations, or cultural comparison by demographics which we could talk about later.

Why is culture an issue and are we taking it seriously?

Ann Christin – Culture might not be the first thing which pop into our mind when entering a new market. Culture is often one of the “soft” spots such as e.g., HR, Marketing. They are often not weighted on the same level as e.g., Finance, Sales.

Culture is often grounded in our behavior and expresses itself in our verbal and non-verbal communication. It is obvious when you listen to what people say and the actions they take, that cultural aspects are not always considered, and therefore companies experience misunderstandings and disputes. I often experience that when talking to brands that communication and relations went wrong. And I am not in doubt that culture is part of that, especially when we are dealing with a culture that is so different from our own and also far away.

Ming – I agree that culture matters in business, and I believe that culture is formed by the people who live in it, and because business deals with people, it’s hard to take culture out of the context when we do business. For me business is about exchanging values among people in various forms like money, resource, and products, and we shan’t forget that in every business transaction we exchange our cultural values too, through language mostly, but also other cultural deeds. However, culture in conventional terms usually distinguishes itself from business. It becomes the ultraviolet or the infrared in the light spectrum in our business plan. Most of us know that it’s no longer enough to hire an English-speaking Chinese as language translator, now we preferably find our fellow kins who speak Chinese to help us in China, that’s cultural recognition to me. Behind this recognition, other aspects like common values, trust, and acceptance are revealed. These three aspects are what I find interesting to talk about from a business perspective, they are also the qualities I seek and acknowledge during projects which collaborate with multi-cultural internationals and Chinese nationals.

Ann Christin – I fully agree with you on that Ming, the time where you could hire your Chinese friend to help you with a project is not enough anymore. I myself have experienced that over the years working with China. As the pace in China’s ecommerce market is speedy you need a person that is well qualified in that particular context you are working with, follows market trends and knows who to target as well as having the network to grow your brand in China.

Ming – In recent years I have been working on many cultural related branding and design projects in China, in collaboration with my fellow colleagues from India, Italy, Denmark, China and US. It is mind opening and inspiring to experience multicultural clashes, which give birth to new ideas, new perspectives, and new opportunities. I have witnessed how our values, mindsets and even behaviors have been impacted, altered, and renewed for the better, well most of the times.

Approaching market from a whole culture perspective appears to be time consuming and resource demanding. What I am interested in is the cultural elements which already exist inside our business activities. I am invested in pinpointing them and then benefiting from them.  

The western (we used to call it international) business models as established conventions are well tested and have been proven to be efficient, but only in western, or western-like markets. Cultural recognition has not been in focus or part of the content, partially because of the shared common cultural values, similar social structures, and mutual understandings within these markets. That is until we reach China, then everything changes.

Ann Christin – Yes, the western business model is working (in the West) but have to be adjusted to the Chinses market. And it has so much more to do with laying the right sales strategy – how much will I sell in Year1, Year2 and so on. Start defining – who to approach, which regions, how to reach them, build trust, create brand awareness and show your value. To do good in China you have to look at it from a broad perspective and both have patience and speed at the same time with a long term strategy.

Ming – Firstly, it is the language interception, a proper Chinese name for the brand to be exact. I have noticed the changes in the past 10 years in China that name giving has gone from transliteration (out of curiosity and respect for western culture) to paraphrase, either for personal names or brand names (names that make much more sense in Chinese cultural acceptance.) I once helped a friend in finding a Chinese name. He has a middle name which inspired me to take a two-character Chinese family name resembling to his middle and family name and this Chinese name once possessed by a famous Chinese philosopher whose profession fits perfectly with my friend’s. To my knowledge the name was positively received by the Chinese. It was eye catching and with certain meaning which very much manifests the character of Chinese culture – meaning for everything. 

Ann Christin – When you touch upon names – A direct translation will not do the job. First, think of the meaning of the name – does it resonate with the consumer, and does it make sense? Be aware of symbols as they also have different meanings. I experienced that when we at Ehubnordic had to find a name for our kids’ online store on Alibaba’s platform, where you have one name in English and one in Chinese being relevant and giving the right perception in each language.  

You probably remember the movie “Lost in translations” with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson about alienation and cultural displacement…a visual image of what we are talking about from a Danish and Chinese perspective.

Ming – It’s an intriguing movie and we can borrow the term “lost in translation” to talk about business activities here. China is distant to Denmark in many perspectives: their geographical locations as well as the culture. Even though we have unveiled much more of each other’s identities and characters through faster and more efficient social and economic activities today, a lot of uncertainty and misunderstanding from both sides are still present. 

The very first barrier is still the language and its interpretations in my opinion. The Chinese language possesses one of the most complex systems when it comes to morphological and phonetical meaning. It still puzzles me as a native speaker with its depth and inclusiveness, along with the mentality and traditions each language (there are hundreds of languages in China) represents. Many years ago, during my first trip to Denmark with a Chinese delegation, to visit a danish firm in Copenhagen, we were greeted with the warmest welcome from company executives with traditional danish breakfast in candlelight and gift exchange. When a danish manager presented beautifully wrapped candlelight and candle holders, I noticed that some of the senior Chinese were puzzled, because in Chinese Buddhist culture “坐蜡Zuola“- (sitting on hot wax) means to corner someone or to make things difficult for someone. So, for Chinese, giving candle as a present was not an option and the intention behind this gift decisively needs to be explained and cultural proverbs need to be clarified. At moment like this, we need to re-examine if our translator, the connector, is the bridge builder or the detonator.

You have probably noticed in some public places in China, there are signs put out for awareness of danger, signs like “小心落水“ means “be careful (NOT) falling into the water”. However, in this context, the word “NOT” is unnecessary in Chinese, so the directly translated sentence becomes “carefully falling into the water”. There are many similar Chinglish examples which give us a glimpse of how our mindset and our cultural establishment is reflected through our language. So, when our connector has no efficient experience with people nor knowledge or experience of a specific business, we would be taking a great risk of letting our business “falling into the water carefully” without even knowing how. 

To some extent I prefer the word interpretation from translation, it contains and defines cultural influences, mentalities, unspoken words needing to be explained and spoken words needing to be transmitted with best intensions.

Ann Christin – I agree with you on interpretation which includes so much more, that just translation from one language to another. Interpretation also includes associations, meanings, perception and connotations of words and contexts. One thing to be aware of is to use time to translate your Danish brand name to something meaningful and positive for the Chinese consumer as this is crucial for the perception of your brand in China. And not only your name but also your content in digital marketing must be adjusted and localized to meet the expectations of the Chinese consumers. That is something that we constantly work on and optimize at Ehubnordic.

Cultural connections are the foundation for relations

Ming – Secondly, it is perhaps the value perception. China has always been multicultural in history. There are 56 ethnic groups and hundreds of languages in active use. The three main believes in Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism, which shaped Chinese civilization and laid foundations for the Chinese social structure, moral values and living traditions. 2 years ago, I was assigned to a “world intangible heritage” design project which gave me the opportunity to visit a village in Guizhou province where the ethnic group Miao lives. The village had less than 50,000 residents but 5 Buddhist temples, 3 Daoist temples, 2 Protestant churches and some local deity shrines. You can easily find Chinese families who worshiping Buddha, Yuhuang (Daoist God) and Jesus all together. This “whatever helps” pragmatic thinking may be significant in Chinese culture but not exclusive, as it extends to other cultures as well, just in different styles. We are often surprised by how similar the values and perceptions among different cultures are, so finding those values might be an easier start-approach when we target a market. Once we find the cultural connection, we can start building trust, and with trust comes acceptance.

Ann Christin – Is culture a prerequisite for starting a business relationship? Yes, it is. And it is an element we must think of when doing business in respect of our partner. Focus tends to be on the commercial side, which is top of mind – revenue, sales, growth…and less on relations and communication. E.g., The “Business as usual” approach must be changed. When we feel confident and trust one another we engage in a project or in a business relationship on equal terms. And with a sound foundation both parties will benefit and grow equally.

During the past 5 years I have worked with e-commerce in China. Helping Nordic brands to get online presence on Alibaba platforms and test, learn and grow their brand in China. This has included working with various brands and digital marketing partner in China. Our purpose is to bridge the gap to China being less frightening and overwhelming. Simply, be the eyes and ears of our partners in China. We operate all activities and processes such as marketing, sales, fulfilment, customer service, reporting etc.

Before discussing business in China with potential brands the talk almost always falls on cultural issues; the differences between us and them and what the brands have experienced from other brands. I call it “Change your perspective”. To be able to engage and cooperate with China you ought to change your perspective and experience that some things are different, or many. How do I cope with this in reality?

It starts in our own backyard. We love to build up everything ourselves, I guess to be in control, instead of relying on partners or outsourcing. You may try to focus on what you are good at and rely on others to take your further. One thing I often hear from brands is that they need to establish their own team, knowledge, and resources before they can start doing business in China. This often goes hand in hand with a substantial investment, it is time-consuming and a huge project. If we must reinvent or start from scratch every time, we will not be able to succeed in new markets and we will not be able to be competitive / innovative.

A lot of brands have their focus on monitoring copycats instead of getting online presence and activate their brand in China. The Chinese consumer prefers (that is why imported products are popular and their design) to buy the original product. Therefore, brands ought to see copycats as a gift – remember China is a highly competitive market and copycats also invest to promote and create brand awareness to be able to sell, even a copy. In this case brands can benefit from their marketing efforts and win, as they as a brand have the original product. What you should use lawyers for is when you wish to sell in China and protect your brand in China (Chinese Trademark).

When I joined Ehubnordic working with China e-commerce it was clear that culture meant that we had to fine-tune how to do things. I remember that our approach to tasks were different – we examine, plan and measure results – focused on sales and short-term results, whereas our business partners started with the approach “Watch and Learn”, “Test and try different activities” and then plan the marketing mix and the investment. During the years we have been able to combine the two approaches to obtain results and fulfil expectations, and that is a continuous process. Hierarchy in Danish / Chinese organisations are different and it is important to be aware for the success of daily tasks and projects. Stereotyping is often present in business relations. Most of the time we are not thinking about it and how it impacts a person.

Culture is also part of how we live. How consumers act and buy products? An early experience was that selling milk powder in China is a traffic driver. Why is that? Are Chinese mothers not breast feeding their babies? Not to the extend, that we are in Denmark. Therefore, there is a great demand for that product. And the milk powder scandal in 2008 is one reason for Chinese consumers´ trust buying imported food and health products. Imported products are interesting because of its originality and design.

Consumers’ suspicion is visible to our customer service as they get questions like – Is this the original product? Is there a real company behind this brand? Can we see a quality report? This is because they are used to copycats and consumers prefer the original product. Therefore, page design on a web shop in China often includes trademark certificate, letter of authorization, quality reports, extended brand story to state that this is not a copy. That is part of the reason why online stores contain much more information than western online stores. Trust must be built into the page design and Chinese consumers are very keen on content.

Understanding your consumers and the market is the first thing that is important for selling your products in China. Their needs and perceptions are different and what matters is how we as brands can tap into their needs, their daily lives and what they value in life. As a brand consider positioning, competition, price point, content, and the appearance of your product.

I often experience that distance is an issue. You cannot quickly visit your business partner and if you do not speak the language, you need an intermediary to help you translate – and often you feel like “You are lost in translation in China”. During Covid19 it has been challenging as we have not been able to travel to meet colleagues physically (although a lot can be done online) or even new colleagues. It is important to meet physically to be innovative and find solutions together.

As distance matters, trust is essential in a business relationship. I am co-hosting a networking group for Design Denmark called “Dansk Design i Kina” in this forum experienced people working with China characterizes business like this – business is friendship and friendship is business. And that might be the first line to address in your strategy papers.

As a last cultural note, which I am not proud of, is that Chinese are being treated differently regarding working conditions in the West e.g., office space, salaries, mandate etc. I find it quite poor that we treat people that way – what happened to equality?

Ming – The issues and worries you mentioned here on “IP”, “trust” and “expectation” are very interesting topics we could perhaps dig deeper intoduring our next conversations, also “consumer acceptance” from cultural perspective could also be relevant as why some commodities can be widely appreciated in China and others “hit a stone wall” hard. Thank you for your initiative.

Ann Christin – “That sounds like a great idea”, Ming. Let’s work on that after the holidays.